From Software To Hard Liquor: How Tech Director Turned Founder, Luan Khanh, Is Reinventing Rượu Gạo

Luan Khanh is reinventing Rượu Gạo

“I want to breathe new life into old traditions,” Luan Khanh, founder of Vietnamese rice wine brand Ngoc Binh tells us. “It’s time we put Vietnam’s rượu gạo back on the map!” 

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

With a master’s degree in computer science, over a decade of experience in software development, and being the director of a successful restaurant POS system company SpeedPOS, Luan Khanh may seem more at home behind a computer than in the world of traditional rice wine distillation. Yet, in 2020, Khanh branched out from the tech industry and embarked on a new venture: founding, Ngoc Binh, his own brand of rượu gạo.

For those unfamiliar, rượu gạo is a traditional Vietnamese rice wine (although some say it’s really a liquor). It’s crafted by fermenting rice with yeast and it’s sometimes flavored with fruits, herbs and spices.

Rượu gạo has been an integral part of Vietnam’s rural life for centuries, in both production and consumption.

“My wife’s hometown, Tay Son in Binh Dinh, is renowned throughout Vietnam for its specialty, Bau Da Rượu Gạo,” Khanh tells us proudly. “And it was there that I first started learning about traditional fermentation techniques and experimenting with making my own wines. The joy I felt when finally trying these first wines inspired me to start Ngoc Binh and bring rượu gạo back into the limelight.”

Ngoc Binh rượu gạo
Khanh’s reinvention of rượu gạo starts with Ngoc Binh, and with its branding “that’s instantly recognizable as Vietnamese.”

Prohibition And Political Turmoil

While its roots are firmly grounded in rural tradition, a closer look at the more recent history of rượu gạo reveals a turbulent past marked by colonization, prohibition, and political turmoil. 

“During the French Indochina period funding for the colonial government came from taxes on the local population,” Khanh explains. Part of that meant controlling both the production and trade of rice wine. “So, they outlawed small-scale winemaking making it a punishable offense,” he continues. “And they replaced it with large-scale industrialization that yielded poor-quality, and sometimes even toxic rượu gạo. And the colonial government set consumption quotas, forcing villagers to buy and consume a certain amount of the inferior, mass-produced wine each month.” 

Tasting times at Reinventing Rượu Gạo
Rượu gạo aging in barrels at Luan Khanh’s wine shop at 135 Phan Đình Phùng, Phú Nhuận.

This monopoly persisted for over half a century, threatening to wipe out the rich tradition and cultural heritage of rượu gạo entirely. Yet, this oppressive system only worked to push the industry underground, and bootlegging and smuggling of contraband rượu gạo became big business.

Keeping Up With Tradition

“Now, Vietnam is in an exciting period of economic growth and international integration. So, I saw an opportunity to rediscover pre-colonial rượu gạo and bring it back to the people,” Khanh nods.

“I’m a passionate historian. History and tradition are such a fundamental part of the rượu gạo process. To me, it was key for me to incorporate this into the Ngoc Binh brand.”

As the name suggests, the portrait on the bottles is of Princess Ngoc Binh. She’s renowned in Vietnamese history for her two husbands who were both kings from rival dynasties. “Actually, we worked with a professor at Saigon University to adapt Princess Ngoc Binh’s portrait for our label. And we used an original font and a red and gold color scheme. All that helped to ensure our Ngoc Binh was instantly recognizable as Vietnamese.”

Rượu gạo cocktails with Ngoc Binh rượu gạo.
The fragrant flavors of rượu gạo lend themselves well to experimentation.

International Inspiration

Despite the strong presence of tradition evident in the Ngoc Binh brand, Luan Khanh is unafraid to break away from restrictive conventions. He is, he admits, taking an innovative approach to rượu gạo production. “During a trip to Portugal, I learned about the ‘arrested’ fermentation method used to create port wine. I applied it to the process of making our Floating Brown Rice Rượu Gạo and found it resulted in a similar sweetness.”

He visited whiskey and brandy distilleries in the US and France too, picking up more ideas. “I played around and found that when aged in American or French oak barrels, our rượu gạo attained a smokey, woody flavor similar to that of bourbon or brandy. But, it remained remarkably light and smooth in taste because of the delicate rice grain.”

Vietnam is the second largest rice exporter in the world, and locally, there are unique varieties being cultivated. “You can’t find them anywhere else,” Luan asserts. “So, by focusing on quality and flavor, there’s no reason why rượu gạo, and brands like our Ngoc Binh, can’t rival the likes of Korean soju or Japanese sake in popularity.”

Dinner with rượu gạo-based cocktails
Dinner and rượu gạo-based cocktails.

Cocktails, Tonics, Spritzes…What’s Next?

Besides serving up a quality, proudly made-in-Vietnam product, Luan Khanh sees his mission as an educational one. “I really want to educate the younger generation about rượu gạo,” Khanh explains. “It’s exciting to see our wines beginning to feature on the menus of high-end bars and restaurants.”

Anan Saigon, for example, the Michelin-starred restaurant led by celebrated chef Peter Cuong Franklin, recently added a rượu gạo gin and tonic and a rice wine spritz to their drinks menu.

“It’s chefs like Peter Cuong Franklin, with his ‘new Vietnamese cuisine’ ideology, that inspire me to continue championing rượu gạo. I too want to breath new life into old traditions,” he smiles.

The fragrant flavors of rượu gạo lend themselves well to experimentation, and, Khanh adds finally, “more bartenders, chefs and creatives should join in and be part of the rượu gạo reinvention too!”

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